Sunday, July 31, 2011

Time Travel with the Beatles

It's taken me a few days to get around to reporting the second evening of our porch cinema. What's my excuse? The report for installment one came out the next day. Well, but that was Jaws, which is the original high-concept movie, and the atmosphere of that screening was of populist celebration. Watching A Hard Day's Night for the second evening of our porch cinema series required more limber minds, and resulted in a lengthy and sober deconstruction by the attendees.

Jamie's Watermelon popsicles (sic?) kept us sharp enough to meet this challenge!

We had to wrestle with this one a bit, I think. In order to engage it as an audience, we had to try to see it through the eyes of a teenager in 1964. That's not impossible, but it takes some work. It's interesting that people over and over again say that this film is "as fresh today as it ever was." How can that be true? It certainly doesn't feel incompetent or naive, as some dated material does. But "fresh"?

Certainly, the film has a free and dabbling spirit; like anything inventive, it gathers ideas (elements of documentary, styles of the New Wave, and conventions of movie musicals), builds on them, and eventually stands apart from them. And along its way we get numerous moments with a timeless quality; the conversation between Ringo and the boy on the river bank is an obvious example. Yet to extend that impression to the film as a whole and claim that A Hard Day's Night stands outside of time is a bit ludicrous.

You've got John Lennon in the bathtub with a battleship and a U-Boat, singing "Rule Britannia" and the anthem of the Third Reich. You've got an exploding youth culture, literally writhing from the shock of watching objects of total celebrity, and of their own pubescent fantasies, assume a physical presence in front of them, shocking also because it had never happened like this before, to anyone.

And you've got those unfriendly exchanges on the train between the snotty young band and the crusty, entitled old timer, the flip upstarts and the hardened Depression survivor. There is a nastiness in the way the lads tease the man, and a bitterness in the man's eyes. I hope I'm not wrong that intergenerational relations are no longer this strained.

The film is a vessel both for these weakening memories and for etchings that are more universal and timeless, and that may be the key to how it works. You'll find an entry point somewhere in this film- it might be the party scene, or when they jump in the fields along to "Can't Buy Me Love," or when Paul's grandfather shakes Ringo to the bone by criticizing his reading habits- it'll be something touchable, something you can imagine happening in your own life- and then you'll have little choice but to imagine that all the rest of it, all the bygone things you'll never see, are part of your life as well. It can't be considered a timeless movie, but in this way it can deliver you to its own time.

Some people argue that rebellion against the older generation is itself a timeless and ongoing phenomenon. If that's true, its vehicle is certainly no longer rock and roll music, which is now being paired with creme brulee at fancy restaurants. When did rock and roll cease to be fueled by this sentiment?

Consider Rock 'n' Roll High School, a film that came out just 15 years after A Hard Day's Night. The spirit of rebellion is raging through its every moment, perhaps most of all when the Ramones finally take the stage and belt out at least three complete songs, songs which rebel against even the conventions of rock itself. The moment is still alive.

Then there was the sequel, Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever, but not until 1991.

The music here, of course, emulates Motley Crue and Guns 'n' Roses, the kind of long haired "metal" rock that rebelled not so much against old people as it did against sobriety, but at least old people didn't like it. The moment isn't quite dead yet, but this is getting kind of silly.

Then just three years later, we had "Woodstock '94." Now what the hell was going on? Junior hippies? They're actually flattering the older generation by imitation!

And while these 20-somethings were dancing with twigs in their beards, the younger folk were at home, tuned in to My So Called Life, a show that advertised the wonders of wholesome family life, and how parents may be bumbling, but darn it, they're trying their best. Not only that, Patty's strained relationship with her father (Paul Dooley) always seemed to give the message that baby boomers have a better shot at connecting with their kids than they ever had at connecting with their own parents. That's 30 years, and a long walk, from A Hard Day's Night.

We don't have a date yet for our next screening, but since we're on the subject of the early 90's, I am seriously thinking that the film should be Army of Darkness. What do you think?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Reasonably Good Movie (an endangered species)

We just watched Fatal Attraction. It made me sigh with longing for a bygone era.

Not that it was a masterpiece. The worst thing about it: they spend so long fleshing out the character of Alex (Glenn Close consulted multiple psychiatrists to make her pathologies as real as possible) only to destroy her remorselessly at the end. Even in a monster movie, there is occasionally a tear shed for the monster when he dies. Why should King Kong get a little empathy and not this messed up girl?

And there are plenty of aspects of the plot that make you slap your forehead. Dan and his wife are made completely aware of how dangerous Alex is and that she could be lurking outside their home at any moment, yet they fail to take the obvious steps to prevent her from entering their home for the big suspenseful climax.

It's as formulaic as any thriller you could think of, but there is at least some amount of intelligence in its construction. You can imagine that the writer at least broke a sweat in his effort to craft a genre piece. There is enough room for at least a couple of surprises, and there are sequences which, though not much more than compulsory checkpoints in the plot, contain believable dialogue and performances, and bring us to a respectable level of interest and investment. The way Dan meets Alex, for example, is commendably subtle; not only does it not bludgeon us with the significance of the meeting, it avoids doing anything beyond what is absolutely necessary. And the scene that really feels alive is in the restaurant, where Dan, the fly caught in the web, gradually relents to Alex's flirtations.

What I'm getting at is, this is what genre films used to be like. There was plenty to criticize them for, but they weren't simply imbecilic. At least you could tell that everyone involved actually cared about what they were making, had some amount of skill and creativity, and gave it a good try.

Now watch these clips from the new Captain America movie.

Genre movies these days feel as though they are parodies of the genres they supposedly belong to. Why are female characters required to prove how no-nonsense they are all the time? Why do they employ such primitive means- shooting at the protagonist, and then strutting around, for instance- to drive this point home? Can't we all be given credit for understanding that women aren't weaklings? Isn't this whole routine cliche enough already?

And how about that Tommy Lee Jones? "The sumbitch did it." The only thing lazier than that line was the decision to cast Tommy Lee Jones to read it. I can't stand it when a good actor is commodified like that.

Okay, so it's only two minutes total out of a whole movie. Maybe it's not fair to write these things after only seeing these clips. Maybe this isn't a trustworthy sample of the quality of the entire experience. But… I doubt it.

What Stephen Baldwin said in Threesome about pizza- that even when it's bad, it's still pretty good- once applied to most genre films. Going to the movies was kind of like going for pizza, or at least Taco Bell. It was even comforting in that way. But no longer.

I don't know, maybe it's just me. I can't really tell if I'm losing my taste for fast food, or if the food is really getting worse.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Porchlight Cinema: A Big Success!

We love our porch.

In the daytime, the sun, the fecundity…

In the evening, the breezes, the fireflies… (not so many, but I totally saw one last night.)

One evening last summer, as we sat out there watching Pillars of the Earth on a laptop, we were struck by the idea of projecting a movie onto a screen for friends.

A year later, the plan finally came together- Jaws and Quint battled on our porch, with a full cinema attending!

Snacks were popcorn in these sharkbite novelty bags, with Old Bay seasoning; drinks (brought by friends) were Narragansett Lager and whiskey, both endorsed by Quint in the movie.

It's not uncommon for people to want to manufacture a movie theater experience at home- by making popcorn, turning the lights down, or shelling out for a big screen or lots of speakers- but we figured we could take it another step with the theatrics and really pretend that we were at a screening in a park or a drive-in. (Showing vintage commercials before the movie helped a lot with this.)

We worried about a lot of ways that this concept might not work- rain, people not being comfortable enough, etc, but as far as I can tell it was a home run. Everyone squished in and really got in the spirit.

The movie also jibed nicely with the season and our travels (we were on Cape Cod for a couple of days).

And it was also great to return to Jaws after waiting so long to see it again, and consider the ways one's perceptions of a movie can change over time. For instance, there's a scene with a grieving mother that I once considered excruciatingly protracted; now, it seems to me about the right length. I once considered it cold and distancing that a child is killed essentially to move forward the gears of the plot, but now I feel appreciative that such a gutsy move was made at all.

There's at least one thing I never liked, and still don't: it's the shot meant to signal Roy Schieder's horror that a beach swimmer is being attacked by the shark. Spielberg uses the field-stretching effect of simultaneously trucking in and zooming out, a technique supposedly invented by Hitchcock for his masterpiece Vertigo. It must have seemed like a great idea at the time, but I still find myself wondering: did they really think they nailed that shot, or were they as put off by its execution as I am, and just couldn't bear to leave it out?

My favorite aspect of Spielberg's technique- what I consider his hallmark innovation- is on full display in Jaws. Let's call it the Dog At The Front Door Effect. Consider: when a group of people in a house are getting ready to go somewhere, and there is a dog in the house, the dog, a highly attuned observer, will see people walking from room to room, gathering things for the journey, exchanging brief sentences in passing ("Have you seen my scarf?" "What time did you say the show starts?" etc.), and the dog will understand more or less what is happening. The dog will wait at the front door, growing more interested and excited. He doesn't need to understand the details that are all over his head anyway; all he needs is the big picture, and he's quite happy to be involved at that level.

This is how Spielberg has made me feel time and again, by presenting various scientists and specialists barking at each other in jargon and busily accomplishing vital tasks that I understand partially or not at all. (Close Encounters of the Third Kind has more of this sort of activity than you can shake a stick at.) An important part of this technique is to provide us with a character who is along for the ride and is just as naive and clueless as we are. In Jaws, Roy Schieder's character is the ear for Quint and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss)'s squabbling (and bonding) about fish; in Close Encounters, Dreyfuss is the one who shouts "What the hell is going on here?" to a mysterious and all-knowing Francois Truffaut. Ironically, the more Spielberg goes over our heads in this way, the more populist his movie gets. We don't need to, and aren't meant to, understand everything, and we know that; we can just enjoy being foolish mutts prancing around because something cool is happening.

The Cape was gloriously foggy (there's the Chatham light house). Just as anyone who blurs movies and life together would, I expected that I'd link the experience of going there to Jaws, but instead I wound up with a much stronger connection to Red Desert, the latest from Jamie's Netflix queue.

I was really in the mood for Antonioni, but at first Red Desert was a bit disappointing. It opens with dazzling style, like a collage of the best moments from a dream diary: two men are made to seem the size of ants; a sheet from a newspaper is briefly anthropomorphized; a cargo ship seems to charge straight through a forest. But I never felt invested in the story until the characters found themselves in a wee pier house, full of cheerful drunk people, a charmingly partitioned bed nook and a black wood-burning stove. Outside the window the pier is engulfed in total fog, out of which great ships silently materialize. There's even more at this point with which Antonioni can create subtle visual confusion and wonder, but this sequence has something else going on that I could finally sink my teeth into: a rich interplay of small human moments and emotions that are not so opaque or mysterious as what the long first act had comprised. For once, it's easy to understand the characters and what they're all feeling and thinking, and that is a relief. Sometimes you just need an entry point like that. I didn't want that sequence to end- I would have been delighted to stay in that shack for the rest of the film. The sequence ends in a way that plunges us back into mystery, but, lo and behold, I didn't mind that at all, because now I was invested in a way I hadn't been before.

One more recent cinema adventure to relate: we had a lazy afternoon watching two indie classics, Sex, Lies and Videotape and Gas Food Lodging. My fascination with this era of cinema is as rabid as ever. Sure, there are thousands of turkeys that came out of the film school gold rush, but the good indie films are amazing because so many of them threaten to become turkeys, are just as campy as their bad siblings, and yet succeed anyway; they verbalize something rare or unexpected, and they end up actually moving you. Some movies are obviously great, but a movie that succeeds in spite of various obnoxious qualities can be just as interesting to study, if not more. Check out Gas Food Lodging. When you get to the part where they're making love in a cave, with bits of rock inexplicably sprinkling on their heads and janglin' singer-songwriter guitar stylings on the soundtrack, you'll know what I mean. And when you get to the part at the end when that guy from Dinosaur Jr. tells Fairuza Balk the untold story, you'll know what I mean again.

We're definitely doing another porch movie this summer and we're deliberating on the next one. Current possibilities are:

Sweet Smell of Success
On the Waterfront
The Thief of Bagdad
Rio Bravo
LA Confidential
Night of the Hunter
The Dark Crystal
My Neighbor Totoro
Nights of Cabiria
King Kong
A Hard Day's Night
Switchblade Sisters
Terror Planet

What do you think?